Life and Life Only

Thinking of Joan Didion: Dec. 5, 1934 – Dec. 23, 2021

Screen shot from Joan Didion: The Center Will Not "The Center Will Not Hold" a 2017 documentary film about Joan Didion and her work, directed by Griffin Dunne, for Netflix
Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

In the fall of 2005, a week or two after the release of writer Joan Didion’s late career best seller,  The Year of Magical Thinking, I went to hear Didion talk about the new book one evening at the Hammer Museum in Westwood.  

The crowd of fans who showed up to see her was so unexpectedly large that the last two hundred or so people were unable to fit in the auditorium. Instead they—we, as I was one of them—wound up sprawling on benches, at metal tables, and, in my case, on the concrete floor of the courtyard outside the building that houses the Hammer while the event’s planners scrambled to rig some speakers so the overflow audience, could listen to Didion even if we couldn’t see her.   

I remember lying on my back on the cement, knees up and crying as Didion read a chapter about her daughter, Quintana Roo, who was hospitalized a few weeks before Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunn, whose death was the general subject of the book, had the massive coronary that killed him. 

I knew, as did most everyone who’d read a review of the new work, that Quintana died after the manuscript was finished but before its publication. As the mother of a then 19-year-old son, the thought of the one-two punch felt unendurable. I wondered how she had managed to remain upright. 

 After the reading ended, Didion was led by two female handlers to a store on the second story of the same plaza where the auditorium was located, and settled into a folding chair at a card table, where she was to sign books.  I ordinarily don’t go out of my way to get books signed by authors, unless they are the works of someone I know well.  My best friend, Janet, who’d accompanied me to the event wanted to leave, but I was unaccountably desperate to buy a book and get it signed by Didion.  Janet kindly agreed to put up with my sudden onset of groupie behavior. 

Didion looked as insubstantial as a shawl of old and intricate lace that you fear to pick up lest it rip in your hands. (It turned out she was stronger than appearances suggested, as in the next two years she would write a play based on the memoir.) She signed my book and chatted graciously with me about having to be taught which page in one’s book one was supposed to sign in order to make the thing valuable to collectors.  

When I got home, I noticed I was kind of hugging the book, as a child might a stuffed animal, as if the physical thing was some sort of amulet, which it was in a manner of speaking. 

The girl among the New Journalism guys.

For those of us who came to literary journalism in the seventies and early eighties (it was then called New Journalism) there were only a few models.  For some Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson and others loomed as huge influences.  For me it was Wolfe to some degree, and Truman Capote (less for In Cold Blood than for some of his minor pieces, strange little stories he did for Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview), that showed me the possibilities hiding in the journalistic narrative. But more than with any of the others, I found inspiration in Joan Didion.  The small woman with the precise and unforgettable writer’s voice.

The girl among all the guys.

I was never attracted to her novels.  The famous LA freeway driving scene in Play It as it Lays was interesting and memorable., but also airless and psychologically unrelated to any Los Angeles I knew.  

Her nonfiction reportage was something else entirely. It was after reading Joan Didion’s nonfiction—most particularly Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of magazine pieces about her experiences in California, and The White Album, her second book of nonfiction stories, published eleven years laterthat I was able to admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer.

 I love her nonfiction for hundreds of reasons, some more quantifiable than others. At its best, her prose has the spare beauty of Greek architecture. Grace without frills. At its best, the rhythm of her prose has the heft of a church hymn, full of major cords.

As writers, and/or as writing teachers, we instruct our students and ourselves to show not tell.  Generally this is taken to mean show us the event, the action.  Give us a scene, a telling detail.  Didion is the master of the psychological show-don’t-tell, even in her lesser works.  

In the book Salvador she describes the mood during the days before a catastrophic earthquake in El Salvador this way: “I had been seized by the kind of amorphous bad mood that my grandmother believed an adjunct of what is called in California ‘earthquake weather,’ a sultriness, a stillness, an unnatural light; the jitters.  In fact there was no particular prescience about my bad mood, since it is always earthquake weather in San Salvador, and the jitters are endemic.”

In many ways, Salvador is a problematic book.  Didion was too much the rich, well-educated white woman, showing up to explain it all to the rest of us, and the premise is vexing.  Yet the precision of her language, the pungent quality of her observations, are still instructive.  Whether true or not, the difficulty Salvadorans might have sensing an oncoming earthquake due to the low-hanging dread that never went away during the country’s civil war years, is an effective way of showing, not telling the reader how it might feel to live with such an ever-present buzz of dread.  

When, just now, I took down my copy of Salvador from the shelf in my office that contains all my Didion books, I found that I’d stuck into this particular book a dozen or so ripped pieces of paper torn from some steno notebook or other, marking pages where this or that observation or turn of phrase had rung tuning fork-like for me, and which I wanted to be able to find again quickly, should I need to do so.

 There are many such resonate moments in The Year of Magical Thinking.

 “I used to tell John my dreams, not to understand them but to get rid of them, clear my mind for the day.  ‘Don’t tell me your dream,’ he would say when I woke in the morning, but in the end he would listen.

            “When he died I stopped having dreams.

            “In the early summer I began to dream again, for the first time since it happened.  Since I can no longer pass them off to John I find myself thinking about them.”

            Well did Didion stop dreaming?  Probably not. Did she stop remembering her dreams?  Maybe.  Likely. Who knows?  Dreams are creatures that stay close enough to consciousness to be retrieved or flee out of sight to deeper levels in response to a variety of cues and reasons.  Whatever the literal truth, this riff of thought conveys a great deal about how we experience loss and about the myriad subtle ways relationship expresses itself, both in its presence and in its absence.  Didion took us there by showing not telling the psychological truth as it lived inside her.

            When her daughter Quintana was hospitalized for a second time, this time in Los Angeles, and it was as yet unclear if she had suffered catastrophic brain damage, Didion had this to say:

            “Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. 

            “Information is control.

            “On the morning after the surgery, before I went to Teterboro to get on the plane, I looked on the Internet for ‘fixed and dilated pupils.’  I found that they were called ‘FDPs.’ I read the abstract of a study done by researchers in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University Clinic in Bonn.  the study follow ninety-nine patients who had either presented with or developed one or two FDPs.  The overall mortality rate was 75 percent.  Of the 25 percent who were still alive twenty-four months later, 15 percent had what the Glasgow Outcome Scale defined as an ‘unfavorable outcome,’ and 10 percent a ‘favorable outcome.’”

  Certainly the surface level of this passage is obvious.  Didion shows us the dire nature of her daughter’s condition through the details of her reading.  But more than that, she is taking us inside the mechanics of her coping mechanism.  She doesn’t need to tell us about her shortness of breath, or whatever other somatic way the fear for her daughter demonstrated itself during those awful days.  Again, it is a psychological show not tell.

Information is control, Didion was showing us, and control is an illusion.

Joan Didion was 87 years old when she died at her home in New York, on Thursday, December 23, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

In her lifetime, she published 19 books, the last of which is Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a book of twelve essays, released on January 26, 2021.

The Year of Magical Thinking, her most popular work, won the 2005 National Book Award,  and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It became a successful Broadway play in 2007, directed by David Hare, starring Vanessa Redgrave playing Didion.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem, published in 1968, was the first of her nonfiction books, and the one that first gave permission and courage to a generation of literary journalists to look for the story behind the story. To find what mattered.


Rest in power, Joan.

The photo at the top of the page is a screen shot from “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not “The Center Will Not Hold,” a 2017 documentary film about Didion and her work, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, and released by Netflix

1 Comment

  • I really enjoyed reading this article. Show not tell is valuable advice at a variety of levels. Happy holidays to you.

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